Annette Mills; She Has an Army

Annette_writing_at_tableThe Corvallis Sustainability Coalition (CSC) is a network of schools, faith communities, government bodies, individuals, non-profits, and businesses united in a desire to make our city more sustainable. They have at least one additional thing in common. They all owe Annette Mills a huge debt of thanks, and probably a hug. The daunting task of coordinating 12 action teams, around 300 partner organizations, and countless volunteers falls squarely on the shoulders of facilitator Mills. Who, by the way, is a volunteer herself.

I spoke to Annette on the front porch of the historic Schuster House, where she lives with her husband of 35 years David. She told me how she became a community builder, and how the CSC came to be. The two stories proved to be inextricably intertwined.

Annette graduated from Stanford University in 1971 with a degree in history. She would eventually earn a master’s degree from Stanford as well. But, before continuing her education, Annette served as a volunteer with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). This domestic version of the Peace Corps is a national service program designed to fight poverty. Annette experienced what she called a “cultural time warp” for one full year. She was pulled from the pinnacle of tolerance in California to the rural Oklahoma town of Chandler. It was the post-integration period in the south, but progress was coming slowly. Here, working with African-American families, Annette gained her only formal community organizing training.

Annette became a public school teacher in Palo Alto in 1973. She went out of her way to get to know not just her pupils, but their families as well. Her passion for community building had truly begun to take hold.

In 1978, Annette married David Eckert. Corvallis Advocate readers should keep an eye on our pages for his name to come up again. David is a documentary filmmaker and the subject of an interview and article.

David and Annette had a daughter, Marta, in 1982. The Cold War and a growing fear of nuclear holocaust made time at home seem more important to the couple than ever. Annette resigned her teaching position to homeschool Marta. With her extra time, Annette became involved in the Beyond War movement. She helped educate people on the obsolescence of war. The movement’s focus on the interconnectivity of society fit nicely with her growing talent as a community builder. The professionals she worked with also taught some of the finer points of organizational leadership.
“I learned a whole lot about how to run a meeting, how to put on events. How to write a press release. How to do PR,” Mills explained.

The family moved to the Washington, DC area in 1988 for David’s work. Falls Church, Virginia, was a fairly progressive city at the time. As luck would have it, the town was looking to hire a part time, work-at-home recycling coordinator. Annette got the job and never looked back. For 18 years Annette grew and modified the position which would include not just recycling, but also litter prevention, solid waste code enforcement, watershed education, and general environmental education. During her tenure as what would eventually be titled environmental program specialist, about 150 regular citizen volunteers joined the team. A local city counselor coined the group “Annette’s Army.”

By 2006, David had retired, Marta was living in the Bay Area, and the Falls Church home was paid off. The couple decided to return to the West Coast. After researching several cities, the couple decided to settle down in Corvallis. During this time, Annette was greatly influenced by two sustainability organizations: the Natural Step and the Northwest Earth Institute. The principles espoused by the two movements would eventually become the tenants of CSC.

In 2007, a meeting was held at the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce. The attendees represented movements studying climate change, overconsumption of resources, transportation, and several other areas that fall under the umbrella of sustainability. The goal of the meeting was to unite the groups. When the question of who would step up to the challenge, Annette raised her hand. The Corvallis Sustainability Coalition was born.

In 2009, action teams were formed to assess and improve conditions in 12 sustainability topic areas. David served as the head of the Water Action Team. The other teams were Community Inclusion, Economic Vitality, Education, Energy, Food, Health and Human Services, Housing, Land Use, Natural Areas, Transportation, and Waste Prevention. These teams reached out to the community for assistance, and the coalition began to grow exponentially.

Today, the CSC continues to grow.

“We’ve been very influential. The last time I counted we were up to 300 different partner organizations, including the city, the county, OSU, the school system, well over 150 businesses, eight faith communities. And I know there are a lot more organizations and businesses that would join if they were simply asked.”

There is still much to do. Thankfully, the CSC is preparing to hire its first employee. They will use a $40,000 grassroots grant from Meyer Memorial Trust to hire a development coordinator. This person will be raising money and writing thank you notes, jobs which Annette currently performs. She is also investigating other items to be taken off her plate.

“The coalition is too dependent on me right now. And my own life is kind of unsustainable,” Annette told me between laughs.

What will she do with her extra time? She looks forward to visits from her granddaughter Zoe. Annette also plans to get to know CSC partner organizations better. She is eager to spearhead the upcoming “Eat 40% Local” challenge. She will be active in Car-Free Day activities. Someone has to plan the yearly Sustainability Fair and Expo. Not to mention the fact that every action plan must be revised every five years. So, it looks like Annette won’t be getting much free time after all. Which seems to be just the way she likes it.

By Dave DeLuca